Saturday, 2 March 2013

How The Pope Opposed Democracy

Magna Carta is regarded as one of the most important documents in English legal and democratic history and in the legal and democratic history of most of the English-speaking world, including most of the USA. What is not generally acknowledged however, is how the papacy in the person of Pope Innocent III opposed this first tentative step towards democracy and reducing ever so slightly the absolute dictatorial power of the monarchy.

Understanding why this was may help people see the relationship the Christian Church still has with democracy, and so put a great deal of the history of the last few hundred years into context.

The background to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymead in June 1215 is complex and not really the point of this blog. If you wish to understand it there are on-line sources here, here and here. The result was that an increasingly autocratic King John was forced by the English barons to sign a document which both limited the power of the monarchy and guaranteed certain legal rights to the people. In fact part of it, the promise to surrender London to the King, was immediately reneged on by the barons, and John only ever regarded it as something signed under duress as a stalling action. The legal validity of Magna Carta comes from the fact that John's successor, Henry III, adopted it in order to unite the country against the French whom the barons had invited in to depose John - who saved the day by rather appropriately dying of dysentery on 18 October 1215.

Lotario dei Conti di Segni, Pope Innocent III
So where does Pope Innocent III fit into all this?

Innocent III had previously excommunicated John, partly to curry favour with the King Phillip Augustus of France, and partly as a reprisal for his taxing the churches. In order to bring the church back on side, John agreed to compensate the Pope and the Church with lots of money, and to submit to him as his feudal liege-lord, making Innocent III de jure titular ruler of England and the English possessions in France. The Pope in return declared Magna Carta null and void.

Innocent III was probably one of the more unpleasant characters to hold the title 'Pope' but at least as his regnal name shows, he had a sense of humour. He is notorious largely on accounts of actions which, if they were repeated today, would be rightly regarded as crimes against humanity:
  • He ordered the suppression and massacre of the Cathars of the Languedoc region of southern France, to help his protector, King Phillip Augustus control his southern barons, and because they had declined to pay tithes.
  • He ordered a crusade against Moorish Spain, which was then most of the Iberian Peninsula other than a couple of Christian kingdoms in the far north, and the subsequent massacre of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.
  • He ordered the Fourth Crusade against Egypt in which, when the Christian army reached Constantinople where it mistook the Orthodox Christian population for Muslims, it promptly sacked the city and massacred the inhabitants. Innocent III then declared this to have been the will of God in order to re-unite the Eastern and Western Churches, under Pope Innocent III, naturally.
It's maybe worth mentioning that a 'crusade' consisted of giving a rag-tagggle bunch of mercenary soldiers, under the nominal control of a handful of princes, kings and dukes, free licence to loot, pillage, rape and massacre their way across Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor and into the Holy Lands with no regard to the religion of those they slaughtered and robbed. They were not paid or supplied but were expected to take what they wanted from the citizenry of any towns or villages they came across on their journey - something they did with enthusiasm, routinely massacring the entire population to the applause of the Pope who declared every death a triumph for Jesus.

Of course papal opposition to democracy is fully consistent with the Bible. No where in the Bible are democracy, human rights, the right to elect a government or regulate its powers ever mentioned. Political power in the Bible is only ever autocratic and absolute, the sole right of kings and emperors and those able to exert power through force of arms. If this is ever mentioned it is only ever to endorse it. The frankest outright endorsement of autocratic government, often quoted to support the 'divine right' of kings, was in Paul's epistle to the Romans where he leaves no doubt about his sect's fawning attitude to authority.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. [my emphasis] Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.

Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
No where in the Bible does any prophet or any apostle ever advocate government of the people, by the people and for the people nor do any of them ever decry its absence.

The concept of democracy and human rights for ordinary people was as alien to the founders of the Christian Church as it was to the authors of the Bible, both Old Testament and New. Not surprisingly the Christian Church, especially but by no means only, the Catholic version, is modelled on that same hierarchical concept of an absolute ruler accountable only to God and having total power over those beneath, who have no right to representation or even to be heard. The lot of the ordinary person is to receive wisdom from above and to meekly obey without question, and woe betide anyone who dares to. Fortunately, all civilised countries have turned their back on this, one of the nastier aspects of organised Christianity, and have adopted more or less democratic forms of government and abolished the right of the heads of the different Christian sects from re-establishing the theocracies which so blighted the development of Europe during the Dark Ages.

The conclave of unelected Catholic Cardinals will be bricked up in Rome soon to haggle and bargain and cut deals amongst themselves over which of them will inherit this absolute power.

So, which modern countries are now founded on those Christian Principles outside the Vatican City?

If Christian Principles are so great, why did the others abandon them over the last few hundred years?






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1 comment :

  1. Christians don't like the truth & especially don't want anyone else to hear it, as they don't like being exposed. Good article Rosa & I have been following these sort of post's for a while by following Campaign@democracydefined.org

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